Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Cause & Effect

I'm on to a new writing book this week, one recommended by Gary Corby. Scene and Structure by Jack Bickham is full of all sorts of writerly advice and since I'm a teacher and firm believer that we don't remember much unless we less teach it, I've got a little lesson for you today on Cause and Effect.

According to Bickham, fiction must make more sense than real life. If it doesn't, the reader isn't going to buy into it. How many times have you read a book and thought, "Oh yeah, isn't it a nice coincidence that the vampire hunter just happened to bump into the evil vampire henchman at the grocery store so he could chop off his head?"

Okay, maybe that's a bad example.

Point is, you can't use the easy way out when you write. I distinctly recall a YA novel I read a while back where the heroine and her boyfriend went to fight the bad guy at the end. The boyfriend went into the school and told her to stay in the car. After a while, the girl went in after him, found the bad guy, and beat him. The boyfriend had just disappeared for half an hour in an easy ploy to let the heroine kick the protagonist's eternal tush.

I was not impressed.

The example Bickman uses is having a character fall ill. While this could happen suddenly and without reason in real life, it will feel like a cheap trick if it happens in a novel. The writer needs to give cues that this character is ill before he kicks the bucket.

Truth is stranger than fiction. Heck, Thomas Jefferson and John Adams both died on the 50th Anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence. But that doesn't mean a reader would have bought that if they were reading a novel about the Revolution.


Matthew Delman said...

That's one of my favorite axioms of fiction -- that it, unlike reality, has to make sense. I keep joking with one of my friends that she should write a book about her life; except that it's so unbelievable that if it were a novel no one would buy it!

This is why I spend so much time agonizing over motivations and plot lines and such -- I know that if I give a single whiff of coincidental action I've lost the reader.

It's crazy hard to juggle it, but totally worth it.

Rick Daley said...

My mind craves logic. I prefer sudoku puzzles to crosswords for that reason. I take great pains to make sure my plots and character motivations fit together. Can't say I succeed all the time, but at least I try!

Stephanie Thornton said...

Matt- Your friend could write her memoir. Sometimes real life can be more interesting to read than fiction.

Rick- I'm anti-sudoku. I'm a pretty logical gal, but those puzzles drive me banana bonkers.

L. T. Host said...

Really interesting post, and definitely something to keep in mind. I usually try to avoid coincidence in my writing anyway, or at least go back a couple chapters and set something up if it's going to be important later. But I never thought about it in terms of what's believable in real life vs. fiction. Thanks for the perspective, your Supreme Dictatress :)

Jemi Fraser said...

So true. I hate when a story throws me out because it's such a ridiculous coincidence.